Traditional narrative ballet and Mark Morris do not cross paths very often. When the two do collide, the outcome is completely unpredictable and for many, unnerving. Will he turn ballet’s greatest love story into a barely recognizable post-modern concoction? Do not be afraid. Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare was a delightful journey through Verona. There was an alternate ending where Morris engaged artistic license and provided the happily ever after that is missing from the story. But more importantly, he introduced many improvements in staging and choreography that actually make more sense than most traditional interpretations of the ballet.
The village scenes in the production exist to establish the depth of hatred between the two ‘houses’ in Verona. Usually, attempts to translate this animosity to the stage lack clarity and result in chaotic riots where the true hostility gets lost. In contrast, this new set reinforced the adversarial relationship between the Montagues and the Capulets by literally placing them in a combative contest of wits. The onstage floor plan was an exact square, comprised by rows of individual tiles. It felt like watching a live chess game complete with strategy and tactics. There were kings, queens, rooks, and pawns trying to conquer, catch and outsmart each other. And, as in any chess game, pieces fell; Tybalt and Mercutio gave their lives in pursuit of their victory. The set provided a context and reality for these group scenes that is rarely experienced.
One surprise in the ballet was the placement of the main pas de deux between Romeo and Juliet. This scene is commonly called the balcony pas de deux because it occurs when Romeo appears to Juliet as she looks out from the balcony of her bedroom. In Morris’ Romeo and Juliet, this pas de deux takes place in the same ballroom where the couple meets earlier in the evening. At first, the omission of the ‘balcony pas de deux’ was shocking, but after watching the re-invented ‘ballroom pas de deux’, the new locale makes absolute sense. By having it occur in the ballroom, there were opportunities to revive movement phrases from the ball, especially the movements performed by the married couples. They met there; their connection was there and through the movement, their intent was there also.
The most important change that Mark Morris introduced in the ballet was making the character parts dancing roles. In most productions, the Capulets, Montagues and the Nurse act; they don’t dance. Morris choreographed each of these roles with equal movement and acting. Not only was this more interesting to watch, but also, it provided a stronger connection between these characters and the rest of the cast. In other productions, these five individuals tend to stop the flow of movement when they are present onstage. Whereas in Morris’ work, they continue forwarding the story by enthusiastically participating in the movement themselves. Once you see it, it is so obvious that this is how these roles were meant to be perceived.
Go and see Romeo and Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare. You may not agree with the changes that Mark Morris made, but you will get a fresh version of a ballet classic where the integrity of the story is still intact. And, if nothing else, you will get a chance to see what choice of brightly colored socks Morris sports during his bow. Saturday night’s choice was red.